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The Globe and Mail

Police card campaign gets nice, not naughty, response

The front of a Christmas card issued by the Abbotsford,B.C. police department is shown in a handout photo. Prolific criminal offenders in Abbotsford, B.C., who have made the department's naughty list will soon be getting a special Christmas greeting.The front of the card shows Santa dressed in police tactical gear and carrying a machine gun.

Handout/The Canadian Press

A month after the Abbotsford Police Department sent Christmas cards to dozens of the city's worst offenders, the department has received three replies thanking it for its unusual initiative.

The APD sent the cards – which featured a scowling Police Chief Bob Rich dressed as Santa in tactical gear, complete with an AR-15 patrol rifle – to 70 prolific offenders, property offenders and former gangsters. The accompanying text read: "Which list will you be on next year?" The cards were intended to remind the recipients they are only one choice away from changing their lives, APD spokesman Constable Ian MacDonald said.

Since then, one person has responded with an e-mail, another with a hand-written postcard and a third with a phone call.

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"In the telephone call, the individual indicated two things: One was that he appreciated our efforts in regards to the Christmas card, but equally important was that he appreciated the APD officer who arrested him last," Constable MacDonald said.

"It was through that arrest that he recognized that he needed to do different things and make a change and the Christmas card kind of reinforced his decision."

The former offender told police that arrest helped him finally kick his drug habit and he is "committed to making a change in 2013," Constable MacDonald said. "You can't hope for better than that."

The e-mail came from a recipient and his wife – both of whom called the card a good idea – and the person who sent a hand-written postcard said he appreciated the Christmas reminder and would be making better choices in the new year, Constable MacDonald said.

The department took some heat last month when it announced the idea, with some critics calling it a poor use of taxpayers' dollars and others questioning the appropriateness of using Santa's image in such a fashion.

"Our all-in cost for the card project was $350," Constable MacDonald said. And of posing Santa with a rifle: "Our opinion is, Santa has – good, bad and otherwise – for some time been co-opted into marketing and has been used by everyone from Coca-Cola onward as far as getting their message out.

"Certainly we didn't think there was anything inappropriate [about] using Santa to get our message out, and we recognize that our recipients are adults. We weren't aiming the cards at children."

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The cards were the idea of Sergeant Mike Novakowski, who handles much of the APD's research and is responsible for many of the department's provocative poster and YouTube campaigns. He said the inspiration came from several police detachments in Britain: According to BBC News, for example, West Midlands Police sent postcards to 700 repeat offenders in 2004 after learning 10 per cent of offenders commit about half of all serious crimes. A year before, more than 1,000 wanted criminals turned themselves in after Merseyside Police sent them specially designed cards, BBC News reported.

In conjunction with other initiatives, the poster and YouTube campaigns helped Abbotsford shed the dubious title of murder capital of Canada, which it held in 2008 and 2009. Those years had six and 11 homicides, respectively – which placed the Fraser Valley city on top on a per-capita basis – compared with four homicides in 2010, none in 2011 and three in 2012.

Constable MacDonald said the three positive responses to the Christmas cards were "in the category of what we had hoped."

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